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Toronto FC struggling to find offence in 3-5-2 early in MLS season

The Reds have not scored from open play in three games stretching back to the MLS Cup final.

MLS: Toronto FC at Philadelphia Union Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Including the MLS Cup final, it has now been three games without a goal from open play. All three times, the opposition has thrown up a 4-2-3-1 formation. All three times, the opposition has planted giant, aggressive, central defenders in the middle. All three times, Sebastian Giovinco has been completely neutralized and Jozy Altidore routinely manhandled. Seems like the rest of MLS has figured out how to thwart our Reds. Seems like the rest of MLS is sharing the same piece of kryptonite.

On Saturday, against the Philadelphia Union, Toronto FC tried to launch a bit of an aerial assault to break the enemy’s lines. Playing into the wind, the four ill-conceived first half attempts at the long ball were intercepted, and the threats easily extinguished. One more try in the second half by Michael Bradley, this time with the wind, produced the same result.

It’s a sad bit of irony. The main reason for trying the long ball is to evade the crowded midfield. But the crowded midfield is precisely why the long ball won’t work. Between four and seven TFC players and six to eight from the opposition creates pure gridlock. Aerial assaults are, therefore, simply Hail Mary propositions. This suits the opposition just fine.

MLS: Toronto FC at Philadelphia Union Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

It was written here, last week, that if TFC wishes to keep the 3-5-2 formation they must increase their speed of play. How? By letting the ball do the work, and constantly moving to try to create short passing lanes. Yesterday, when TFC did this, the results were fairly positive: a couple of chances for Altidore, a chance for Tosaint Ricketts; Justin Morrow with a good look at the target. While none of these chances resulted in a goal, they did prove how to breach the opponent’s defensive fortress.

With 449 passes attempted during yesterday’s contest, TFC improved upon their total of 337 from a week ago. That’s a good sign. But with the opposition fielding such a clogged midfield, TFC still needs to pass more - more quickly and more often.

This brings up Armando Cooper. Cooper’s tenacity and ability to protect the ball are both admirable, but he must improve his passing. Too many times, Cooper held the ball for far too long. He tried to beat too many players with his dribbling, rather than with his passing. The time that he wasted with the ball at his feet allowed the opposition to get back into formation and either the ball was intercepted, or a foul was committed. Either way, TFC’s offensive flow was halted.

Cooper needs to enhance his ability to visualize. He needs to know where the ball is going before it touches his foot, rather than trying to make things up on the fly. He is not the only guilty party in this regard, but Saturday he was the most obvious.

Creativity and speed from the No. 10 and No. 8 positions are now more critical to TFC’s offensive success than ever before. If TFC is adamant on keeping the 3-5-2 formation, then they have to face the wall of defenders head-on, as neither the aerial long ball nor the high flanks are options at this stage. In their last three MLS contests, when TFC has tried to go wide they have been pinned against the touchlines. Even if the wing-backs were able to get long crosses into the box, the centre was too crowded for anything good to happen.

On Saturday, however, there were times when Morrow and Tsubasa Endoh demonstrated the proper way to use the sides against a clogged 4-2-3-1: play 15-20 yards inside the touchlines. This caused the defensive formation to contract. By contracting the defence, the winger was presented with several options: a) look for a trailer to tee-up a shot; b) turn on the jets and cut further inside for a shot on goal himself; or c) play a short lob into the middle to create a scoring chance. Having the wingers play well inside the touchlines also gives the midfield more options for short, quick passes, further keeping the defence off balance. But this has to be done routinely.

MLS: Toronto FC at Philadelphia Union Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

As mentioned, the above is predicated on TFC maintaining their 3-5-2. Another alternative is for the Reds to change their formation. Given that the rest of the league has figured out how to thwart TFC’s offence, it may not be too early in the season for such a drastic change. At this stage, Toronto’s main problem is not defence. Yes, there have been some misses at the back, but the focus needs to be on generating offensive sparks from open play. With that in mind, a 3-4-3 may be more effective, or perhaps an unorthodox 3-1-3-2-1. The latter provides a tight, battering-ram formation that should encourage quick passing through the middle while using the sides rather than the far flanks for support.

Whether it’s enhancing the passing game within the existing formation or changing the formation altogether, TFC needs to employ a different set of tactics. The opposition is too well prepared, and will continue to be well prepared for the entire season. No goals from open play in three games, resulting in three draws in three games, is a trend, not a coincidence.

As a last-ditch alternative, perhaps TFC can use their diamond to defeat the opposition’s kryptonite. But, we’ll consider this a Doomsday proposition.